As the leader of the Atomic Bomb! Band, Ahmed Gallab toured the world with a supergroup celebrating the West African synth funk of William Onyeabor. Before that he played with indie rock bands Caribou, Yeasayer and Of Montreal, and as a college student was part of the punk and hardcore scene in Columbus, Ohio.
His current band Sinkane has just released its sixth album, Life & Livin’ It, which blends genres as diverse as highlife, free jazz, desert blues, funk and krautrock and will be appearing at WOMADelaide this weekend.
Broadsheet: You were born in London, and grew up in Sudan, Utah and Ohio before moving to New York – where do you call home now?
Ahmed Gallab: In the past, I would try to make up some stupid, romantic answer and say that I’m a citizen of the world. But I think New York is my home in many ways – I have a connection to that city that I don’t have with any other city because it’s made up of everything from where I’ve been. I have a very strong Sudanese identity, but I would say at the end of the day, New York is my home
BS: Your family left Sudan because your father, a journalist and politician, was exiled after a military coup – have you tried to avoid being overtly political in your music as a result?
AG: Yeah, I think so. I made a conscious effort after what happened to my father to not be political like he is. Ultimately what I want to do with my band is connect with people. Specifically, people like me – children of the second-generation diaspora who feel confused about their identity and don’t really know what place to call home. I want them to know that they’re not alone, so the easiest way I felt to connect with people is to talk about my personal experiences as candidly and as honestly as possible. And in turn I realised when I was done with the album that all of those experiences are pretty political. So I feel like I am political without trying to be.
BS: Your latest album has influences from all over Africa – is that something you’ve been listening to more of recently?
AG: I grew up listening to a lot of East African music – Sudanese, Ethiopian, Somali, Egyptian music, and a lot of Middle Eastern music. And my father was a really big fan of desert blues music. I remember when I was eight or nine years old, my dad and I went to [music retail store] Media Play and I wanted him to buy me an Offspring CD. So he picks it up, and then he buys Ali Farka Toure’s The Source. As we check out, he looks at it and he says, “one of these days you’ll realise how amazing this is, and how much better this is than this shit that you’re buying”. And he’s totally right – that record, more than any West African record other than William Onyeabor, has been really, really influential for me.
BS: As the leader of the Atomic Bomb! Band, playing William Onyeabor’s music, you worked with a number of other musical polymaths like David Byrne, Damon Albarn and Pharoah Sanders – what was that like?
AG: I learned a lot from all of those guys and I feel like out of it I gained a lot of confidence. Working with Pharoah Sanders in particular was one of the most surreal experiences of my life. He’s the reason I started Sinkane. Everyone has this idea of David Byrne as this maniacal, ego-driven tyrant but he’s just open, he’s like your fun uncle that just wants to hang out and play music with people and it was so much fun to see that, to see a human version of him and not what everyone thinks he is.
BS: What can we expect from the WOMADelaide show?
AG: We’re a six-piece band now. We’ve added two ladies to the band, so it’s them, the four boys plus we have two guys from Adelaide who are playing horns. So it’s a fully realised sound now – it’s always been my vision to have it like this. The live set is really great for me because it relieves me of a lot of pressure, I don’t have to do much, I just play guitar and sing and that’s what I want to do.
WOMADelaide will take place in Botanic Park from Friday March 10 to Sunday March 13. Sinkane will play on Saturday March 11 at 6pm and on Sunday March 12 at 6.15pm, as well as appearing at the Taste The World Tent at 3pm on Monday March 13. Ticket and a program are available online.